BIG EAST Women's Basketball

For UConn, A Familiar Destination At The End Of An Unusual Path

For UConn, A Familiar Destination At The End Of An Unusual Path

The most dominant mainstream American sports program since Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball teams returns to the Final Four after a long and winding road.

Mar 30, 2022 by Kyle Kensing
For UConn, A Familiar Destination At The End Of An Unusual Path

Geno Auriemma coached 21 UConn teams to Final Fours before 2022, but the 22nd is no less rewarding—and few have been more unusual for the Huskies. 

“What's unique about this one,” Auriemma said on Tuesday ahead of UConn’s national semifinal matchup with reigning national champion Stanford, “Is the journey we took to get there, how we had to navigate the season with everything that transpired.”

The most dominant mainstream American sports program since John Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball teams returning to the Final Four might seem ho-hum. But UConn won the last of its 11 national championships in 2016. 

By Huskies standards, they couldn’t be in any more of a drought if they were in the Sahara. 

Since winning its first title in 1995, UConn never went more than five years without a championship prior to this season. The Huskies were so dominant from the late 2000s into the first half of the 2010s, critics opined they were bad for the sport. 

The opposite is proven true since UConn’s reign ended. Women’s basketball has never had more parity at the top, evident in the sharing of the national championship over the last four Final Fours. 

Four programs—South Carolina, this year’s favorite, Notre Dame, Baylor and the Stanford bunch UConn sees on Friday—have won the title. Newcomers to the title picture Mississippi State and Arizona advanced to the championship game over that five-year window. 

And both did so knocking off UConn teams in the national semifinals. 

The 2022 Final Four is another sign of the changing times, as the other semifinal features two teams in South Carolina and Louisville that both beat UConn in the regular season. Top-ranked South Carolina did so soundly on a neutral court back in November, 73-57. 

That was the first of three double-digit-point losses in the regular season for the Huskies. Perhaps the most stinging loss of its campaign, however—or at least, the outcome most indicative of UConn’s new-found vulnerability—was a 3-point nailbiter against Villanova. 

A furious, 24-10 comeback effort in the fourth quarter fell short, as Villanova’s dominance for the preceding three quarters proved to be too much. The loss ended UConn’s 169-game winning streak in conference games, a tear spanning its time in the American and return to the Big East. 

It was also the rare occasion in which the opponent had who arguably looked like the best player on the court. Maddy Siegrist’s 17-point, 12-rebound (with five offensive) performance buoyed the Wildcats in a milestone moment. 

Of course, UConn played that night without sensational Paige Bueckers, as it has for more than half the season. Olivia Nelson-Ododa was also dealing with injury when the Huskies fell to Villanova. 

But injuries are nothing new; facing teams with the talent and depth to stand toe-to-toe against UConn is. 

That has made the Huskies have to battle—like in the Round of 32 when a former conference counterpart, UCF, gave Auriemma’s team all it could handle. 

The Huskies survived a 52-47 slugfest that was defined by physicality and trash talk.

“Their kids were yelling at our kids, ‘You guys are soft,’ all that,” Auriemma told “I said to one kid, ‘You’re right.’ I said, ‘Tell them again.’” 

Despite teams catching up with UConn, Auriemma hasn’t lost his touch as a coach. He spun the Knights’ taunts into motivation for the Huskies, and they responded to advance to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. 

In the regional final against top-seeded NC State, the Huskies had to answer a tough challenge again. Bueckers and Christyn Williams were excellent, combining for 48 points in a 91-87 thriller that ranks among the most exciting NCAA Tournament games in recent memory. 

“The Elite 8 game against Baylor [in 2021], I didn't think we could top that and how crazy the game was,” Bueckers said following the double-overtime win on Monday. 

“But I think [the NC State win] might have topped it for sure. It was just a lot of fun to play in. Two very competitive teams, like coach said, just playing for our lives at that point.”

In 2021, UConn outdueled the reigning national champion Baylor to continue its pursuit of a championship. In 2022, the Huskies will again face the reigning champs—and will do so without Dorka Juhasz. A fractured wrist sustained in the Elite Eight will sideline her for the Final Four. 

“it's kind of par for the course for this particular season,” Auriemma said on Tuesday. 

“She was finally getting her legs under her yesterday…Devastating for her. But it could only happen to us three days before we play the longest, most athletic front line, the tallest group of players that exist in the tournament, that being Stanford's team and their amazing post players.”

Amazing post players, and an amazing coach. Not many have credentials that stack up against Auriemma’s but Tara VanDerveer comes awfully close: 14 Final Fours, three national championships and more than 1,000 career wins. 

“We both played great competition. We're experienced teams,” VanDerveer said on Tuesday.

“We play similar styles, and we know that the team that does their thing better will win.”